Frost Carves Out New Niche

Posted March 26, 2003 at 6:45pm

Officially out of the leadership for the first time in eight years, Rep. Martin Frost (Texas) is staying relevant by carving out a new niche as the senior Democrat from the South and key spokesman for centrist Members.

The former chairman of the Democratic Caucus and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Frost is now working outside of the elected leadership to highlight his expertise on key issues like election strategy, campaign finance reform and redistricting.

And he’s trying to be a louder voice for moderate Democrats on issues ranging from health care to the budget to national defense — all of which he believes Democrats must focus on to win.

“I think it’s important that Democrats who speak from the political center and have significant expertise be as visible as possible,” said Frost, who wanted to succeed Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) as Minority Leader last year but could not round up enough votes to defeat Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

In trying to push the party to the center, Frost has been one of the most vocal Democratic backers of President Bush’s efforts to disarm Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, urging Democratic and Republican leaders to speak with one voice on the conflict. Frost has long been an aggressive advocate for a strong Democratic position on national security and defense, believing the party loses if it gets caught to the left of the GOP.

Frost’s moderate positions run a bit counter to the work of Pelosi, who was a vocal opponent of a war in Iraq, though she too is now urging lawmakers to come together to support the U.S. troops who are in harm’s way.

While there are inevitable questions about whether Frost is positioning himself for a future run at the top job, the Congressman insists he’s merely trying to figure out the best way to help the party rebuild — while simultaneously finding his new post-leadership focus.

“There are a lot of things I bring to the table,” the 13-term veteran said. “I think there’s a strong need for an active, strong, moderate voice for Democrats. I don’t have any fixed goal, but I do want to be active and continue a role of providing leadership.”

Frost added: “I’ve staked out some legislative areas that I’m interested in. I’ve decided I’m going to be very active. I’ve found that since I don’t occupy a formal leadership position for the first time in eight years [I can] make time to do some interesting things.”

Frost said he has no designs on the top job, or any other leadership slots, right now. What the ranking member on the powerful Rules Committee does want, however, is to remain vocal and contribute to Democratic efforts to regain the majority they lost in 1995.

“Republicans are undoing what we did in the early 1990s,” Frost said of the Clinton years. “People who care about their economic future should be looking to the Democratic Party.”

In his latest effort to add to the mix, Frost recently kicked off a series of issue-related events through his leadership political action committee, the Lone Star Fund PAC. The meetings, held for his backers and friends, have focused on topics related to winning back the House, dealing with new campaign fundraising laws and crafting public policy.

“For the first time in a number of years, I have the time to do the things I want to do,” he said.

Frost said he plans to continue these meetings throughout the year, hoping to educate outside groups about key issues and election developments. He said the goal is to develop mainstream issues for Democrats, and convince the public they can be trusted to deal with the economy and national defense — issues the GOP has traditionally captured at the polls.

All of that can be a complement, not a hindrance, to the party leadership, according to Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), a Frost ally and leader of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

“As he worked his way up in the leadership, he always worked to make sure the party was inclusive, and recognized that if the party was going to be successful that we had to move in a more centrist direction,” said Stenholm. “The party didn’t always listen to him, but it should have.”

Even his one-time adversary Pelosi applauds Frost for his contributions to the Caucus, saying his role is vital to the party’s success.

“To win back the House, we will need every member working as a cohesive team,” Pelosi said. “Martin is an extremely important part of that team.”

One Member who has turned to Frost for advice is new Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.), who credits Frost with a keen sense of what it takes for Members to win in swing districts, and invaluable knowledge of House procedures from his work on the Rules Committee.

“By the very nature of that role, significant members of our Caucus look to him,” Menendez said.

“He’s critical to the Democrats,” added Rep. Nita Lowey (N.Y.), former chairwoman of the DCCC. “He has a real in-depth understanding of individual Congressional districts. And he has a really good understanding of the inner workings of our Caucus.”

Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), the current DCCC chairman, is another Member who has sought Frost’s counsel.

Matsui tapped Frost as an ex-officio chairman of the DCCC, saying he needed the veteran Member to help him get up to speed at the campaign committee and help navigate the new campaign finance law. Frost was a reluctant supporter of the new law, which he ultimately supported when it passed last year.

“I think he’s doing some things that are really helpful to the cause [of winning back the House],” said Matsui, a close Pelosi ally. “Some of it is to make himself relevant, but more than that I think everything he’s doing is with the goal of taking back the House.”